Erasing Past

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The discovery of a fossil-rich site at Guryul Khonmoh by a British geoscientist in late 19th century initiated studies that geologists claim helped them unlock the Apocalyptic mysteries supposedly taken place some 260 million years ago. Instead of preserving it as a world heritage site, as other nations have done, J&K has abandoned it for loot and plunder. Shams Irfan reports.

Signs of fresh excavation visible at Guryul Khonmoh. Photo: Shams Irfan

As the sun starts to set on the horizon, leaving behind the silhouette of countless tin-roofed houses, big load carrier trucks move stealthily, one by one, towards the barren hills of Khonmoh village in south Kashmir. The trucks pass unnoticed through narrow roads and climb towards Guryal Ravine where huge earth movers and heavy rock cutting machines are working to fill them up with freshly mined limestone. During daytime, the machines remain hidden inside large cavities cut deep into the ravine by mining operators.

Guryal Ravine, as it is known to geoscientists across the globe, is perhaps the best record of the Late Permian mass extinction (believed to have occurred 260 million years ago) in which around 96 per cent of all marine species and 70 per cent of all terrestrial vertebrate species vanished from the earth.

In Khonmoh, illegal excavation inside Guryul Ravine is an open secret. Any outsider visiting the area is a suspect for the locals; people ask questions and try their best to discourage visitors from going close to Guryal. “It is a wasteland. What is there to be seen?” said a local who met me on my way to Guryul. “You are wasting your time. It is dangerous to be there after sunset,” he warned.

Under the cover of the darkness, trucks carrying excavated rocks from Guryul Ravine move quickly towards a large ground housing a workshop which serves as a parking lot for local trucks owners and dumps their load there. From there onwards, these rocks are refilled into trucks after the middlemen, usually a local, strikes a deal with the nearby cement industries.

A truckload of limestone extracted from Guryul Ravine fetches the local quarry operators around Rs 4000, against Rs 1500 for a normal truckload of rocks. According to Geoscientists who have been visiting the area, the grey to pale-grey rocks found on the eastern side of Guryal Ravine, which locals claim contain iron, hold key to unlock the mystery behind 260 million years of extinction of 96 per cent species and evolution of new species.

However, because of the official neglect, these rocks along with the dark coloured volcanic rocks, which are found on the western side of the ravine, are extracted illegally and sold to cement industries located in villages around Khonmoh.

“There is a high demand for these dark brown rocks,” said a local quarry owner who wished not to be named, “Normal rocks fetch between Rs 1000 to 1500 per truckload but these golden rocks are sold for as high as Rs 4000 for a truckload.”

A team of geoscienticts led by Prof G M Bhat at Guryul

A team of geoscientists led by Prof G M Bhat at Guryul

According to Prof GM Bhat, a Sedimentologist at the University of Jammu, fossil-rich beds in Guryul Ravine date back to 260 million years and contain macro and microfossils including small invertebrates, plants, primordial corals and a group of mammal-like reptiles known as therapsids. But these fossils are embedded within thick layers of limestone – one of the important ingredients for cement manufacturing industry.

In 2007, after a team of Geoscientists from different countries visited Guryul, local authorities declared it as a protected area and banned all mining activities immediately. Led by Prof Bhat, the team included world-renowned earth scientists, Dr J Gregory Shellnutt, Department of Earth Sciences, National Taiwan Normal University, Prof Michael Brookfield and Jeremy Williams, Environmental Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Massachusetts at Boston, Dr Aymon Baud, Geological Consultant, Zurich University, Switzerland, Dr Nicolas Goudemond and Maximiliano Meier, Zurich University, Dr. Jonathan Craig, vice-president, eni Milan, Professor Juergen Thurow and Dr Bindra Thusu, University College London and Mr. Langhanbach from USA. The team collected samples from Guryul Ravine in order to determine compositional variation in the rocks across the mass extinction boundary and assess possible environmental changes that may have led to the extinction.

“The grey rocks, as unassuming as they are, hold the key to unlocking the mystery of the Late Permian mass extinction,” Dr Shellnutt told Kashmir Life in an email interview. “These rocks were deposited in a shallow to deep sea environment and contain numerous preserved fossils which are easily visible with a hand lens,” said Dr Shellnutt, who is planning a visit to Guryul in summer this year.

“There were rumours that a team of foreigners have found a gold mine in Guryal,” said Attah Mohammad, a local labourer who works at one of the illegal quarries. However, it was Bhat and other Geoscientists’ visit to Guryul Ravine, which forced quarry owners to abandon the area for some time and they started mining in adjacent Haar Dallah region, which is an extension of Guryul Ravine.

But, contrary to local authorities’ claims, mining never stopped completely as local quarry owners started blasting the rocks during the night and collect pieces from the site during early morning hours. “Their (quarry owners’) day often starts after sunset. It is hard to detect them as they have cut maze-like columns deep into the ravine,” said a local law enforcement officer who wished not to be named. “It is impossible to monitor the area round the clock.”

Loot and Plunder: A load carrier truck carrying precious limestone rocks leaves Guryul Ravines -- Photo: Shams Irfan

A load carrier truck carrying precious limestone rocks leaves Guryul Ravines – Photo: Shams Irfan

Recalling his visit to Guryul, Dr Shellnutt said: “During our visit to Guryul Ravine, there were telltale signs of active quarrying not too far from the preserved section. It was clear the quarrying was inching closer and closer to the preserved section.”

Geoscientists have been visiting Guryul since 2007 to collect fresh samples for studying the area. “I started work in Guryul in 1984. I again visited the area in 2007 with (Prof GM) Bhat and others to collect samples for study,” Brookfield told Kashmir Life in an email interview. Since then, Brookfield has been visiting Guryul every two years to collect fresh samples for study.

Guryal Ravine overlooks Khonmoh, a small industrious village surrounded by big cement industries. Almost every household in Khonmoh owns a truck. According to locals, there are around 700 trucks in Khonmoh, making it highly dependent on industrial activity for its survival. A few years back, the state government marked Khonmoh as a state industrial complex and acquired large barren fields for fresh industrial units.

With a population of around 10,000 persons, Khonmoh swelled towards the foothills of uneven and barren slopes of Guryul Ravine. Newly constructed houses obstruct the once uninterrupted view of the village below.

Dr J Gregory Shellnutt

Dr J Gregory Shellnutt

According to locals, Guryul used to be a beautiful picnic spot visited on weekends by families and school kids only two decades back. “When I was a kid, I remember going to Guryul for a picnic,” said Noor Mohammad, a local resident who owns two trucks and earns his living by transporting cement. “There was a big Chinar tree and a freshwater stream flowing from mountains. We used to sit under Chinar shade for lunch,” Mohammad recalls.

The demography of Guryul changed with the arrival of industries. With mushrooming cement industries that filled the surrounding landscape, the appetite for raw material grew manifold. The rapacious industries explored locally available raw material to cut costs. And Guryul, with its abundant supply of fossil-rich limestone and easy accessibility, became quarry owners’ heaven.

The telltale signs of big rock excavations, drilled deep into the ravine, are visible like scars on a beautiful face. The remains of the half-burnt Chinar trees, which once shaded local holidaymakers, now decay in silence. The freshwater stream dried up soon after.

Despite authorities denying any fresh excavation in Guryul, large columns of rocks lie scattered around the burned Chinar tree. “Who says mining has stopped in Guryul? Come after sunset and I will show you how many trucks leave the place,” said a local shopkeeper who refused to be named fearing reprisal from the mining mafia.

“Of course our concern is that the quarrying if left unchecked, would eventually reach the Guryul Ravine section and wipe out one of the most important natural historic sites documenting the Late Permian mass extinction in the world,” feels Dr Shellnutt.

Fresh excavation visible at Guryul Khonmoh. Photo: Shams Irfan

In 2007, on J&K Geology and Mining department’s request, District Commissioner Srinagar imposed a complete ban on any sort of mining activity at Guryul Ravine.

But, according to sources in the Geology and Mining Department, illegal mining has not ceased in the area despite clear direction given to the concerned police station (Panthachowk) and local Tehsildar to take stern action against any person violating the ban.

Last month, officials from Geology and Mining Department along with the police conducted a raid in the Guryul Ravine and seized an earth mover (JCB) and arrested one person from the spot.

“We have lodged an FIR (No 131/12) against one Firdous Ahmad Ahangar s/o Mohammad Ramzan Ahangar, who was arrested from Guryul during the raid,” said Sheikh Aslam, SHO, police station Panthachowk.

Recently, while replying to an official communication from the ministry of commerce and industries, Jammu and Kashmir regarding the present status of Guryul Ravine, Geology and Mining Department wrote: “Illegal mining is still going on in Guryul despite a ban. The official ban has failed to demoralize the mining mafia who blast the rocks off during night time.“

“Where do they get dynamite from? Who is providing them with blasting materials?” asks a senior minerals officer from Srinagar.

But when Kashmir Life contacted concerned police station about the use of dynamite in illegal mining, the police said, “There is no blasting going on in Guryul. They just use small tools to extract lose rocks.”

“We have not received any formal complaints so far regarding illegal mining. However, we conduct surprise checks on our own,” said SHO Panthachowk. “But because of inaccessible terrain, it is hard to keep round the clock vigil. They often operate during night time,” he said.

If the area is fenced properly then quarry owners cannot transport rocks from the area. “We have asked the government for Rs 1.5 crore to fence the area completely but nobody seems to care about Guryul,” he added.

According to reliable sources, J&K Governor had written to the minister of Industries and Commerce and instructed him to ensure the protection of the Guryul Ravine section, who subsequently visited the area some time back in 2012. Vice-chancellor, University of Kashmir, Talat Ahmed, who himself is a geoscientist, had also briefed the Governor about the importance of the section and suggested protection of the site for geo-scientific studies.

“Governor was very positive and assured the preservation of Guyrul at all costs,” Ahmad told Kashmir Life. “The government should declare Guryul Ravine as a heritage site and ensure that no quarrying takes place at such an important site,” he added.

In September 2011, Prof Michael Brookfield, while interacting with students and academics at the University of Kashmir, said Guryul section closely resembles the K-boundary section in Texas, United States and may have been deposited in the same way by waning tsunami.

Brookfield shocked the world by claiming that the Geological evidence at Guryul Ravine indicates that there is enough evidence of tsunami preserved in the Guryul rocks that originated from Tethys Sea some 250 million years ago. He claimed that the prehistoric Tethys Ocean flowed where Kashmir’s Guryul Ravine now stands.

The revelation, if true, will change the geological history of the region, particularly of Kashmir, which is surrounded by Great Himalayas on one side and Pir Panjal on the other, and is a landlocked tract.

According to experts, Guryul was famous much before 2007; the importance of Guryul is well documented in Sir Walter Lawrence’s famous book, Valley of Kashmir, in which he talks about Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen, a British Geoscientist, who first discovered Guryul’s fossils in 1886.

“We will be doing a very detailed study of closely spaced samples to make sure we haven’t missed something (for example, the end-Cretaceous impact layer is often only a few centimetres thick),” Brookfield added.

Preserving Heritage

Prof Bhat collecting rock samples from Guryul Ravines during a visit in 2011

Prof Bhat collecting rock samples from Guryul Ravines during a visit in 2011

The protection of naturally and historically significant sites is a common practice in all countries and is often extended to include marine sanctuaries and places of scientific interest. As an example, the global stratotype section of the Late Permian in China at Meishan is currently a protected site under the national protected areas program. Since the Meishan section is of cultural, historical and geological significance, the locality is protected from development, and tourists and scientists alike can enjoy what is one of the most studied Late Permian sections in the world.

There are numerous other examples of geoparks throughout the world which protect scientifically and culturally important sites; for example the North West Highlands Geopark in Scotland and the Qeshm Geopark (mangrove forests) of Iran. Many of the designated sites receive funding through local and national agencies and also from the United Nations.

“The Late Permian stratigraphic section at Guryul Ravine, it seems to me, would be an obvious candidate for designation as a protected area or geopark at the state and federal levels of government with a possibility of support from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),” Dr. Shellnutt told Kashmir Life.

He feels that with proper planning (i.e. guided tours and security), infrastructure (i.e. interpretation centres) and investment, a geopark at Guryul Ravine could be a destination for interested tourists and thus generate revenue for the local community. Instead of a one-off payment related to resource depletion, a geopark could generate revenue in perpetuity, provided the site is well-maintained and accessible. “Guryul is very important as one of the best in the world to study the extinction and its possible causes. It is what has been called a ‘world-class’ site,” said Prof. Brookfield.

Dr. Shellnutt said Guryul Ravine section is arguably one of the most complete marine sections which document the “Great Dying,” as the Late Permian mass extinction is known, but due to its inaccessibility over the last two decades due to turmoil in the state, it is one the least studied areas.

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